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Her superiors, who considered it a "coup" when they hired Allison Lister two years ago, use superlatives like "gold standard" and "excellent" to describe the work of the departing Anoka County director of veterans services. But it's what Lister rarely heard that prompted a scathing e-mail to the County Board asking, "Where is the leadership in this county?"

In a seven-paragraph memo to the county's administrator and seven commissioners, Lister described the county's leadership as "appalling," chastised her bosses for a "complete lack of communication," and said of their business approach, "If this is transparency, I must be blind."

Lister, 46, who learned that she is paid substantially less than some veterans services directors in metro counties, announced in January that she was resigning. But her e-mail was written weeks later, on Feb. 20, and has nothing to do with pay. Nor was it a parting shot; Lister, who says she loves her job and the county, has agreed to direct the veterans services office until June 1, at the request of her division manager, and she works daily with the people to whom she sent the e-mail.

The trigger for the memo came after her resignation became official -- when Lister learned that her office was to be studied by a specialist from another department. Lister, who holds a four-year degree in organizational behavior and management, wanted to know why she wasn't consulted.

If there were problems -- and she says her office has received no complaints in her two years as director -- she wondered why she wasn't made aware of them. Only two commissioners have set foot in her office, she said. Why, she wondered, would her office be singled out by the board?

When asked by the Star Tribune to explain why she said in the e-mail that lack of leadership "has made me lose confidence in the county board," Lister didn't back down.

"My problem with this board is nobody talks," she said. The episode was not an isolated case of lack of communication, she said. Of five board members who returned calls from the Star Tribune for this story, three -- Jim Kordiak, Carol LeDoux and Dan Erhart -- praised Lister's abilities and agreed that the board has not communicated well. A fourth commissioner, Andy Westerberg, a member of the county management board, said he wasn't aware that Lister had submitted her resignation.

"When I first saw the e-mail, my first thought was I'd kind of like to find some time to meet with her," Westerberg said. "I haven't had time to do that."

Robyn West, the board's vice chairwoman, said county managers "might find it intimidating" having commissioners visit their offices.

"I dealt with generals while in the Air Force," said Lister, a veteran of that service. "I don't think I would be intimidated by a county commissioner."

Dispute over pay

Lister said she resigned after learning that veterans services directors in other metro counties were making as much as $12,000 more than her -- even though those directors do not handle one-on-one caseloads, as Lister does.

But Lister's boss said her resignation goes deeper than salary. "Allison was frustrated by the process," the amount of time it took the board to handle personnel issues, said Steve Novak, the county's division manager for government services.

Shortly after sending the e-mail, Lister called Kordiak to let him know that her comments were not directed at him. Kordiak told Lister that she wasn't the problem.

"Building a relationship with staff is not something this board chooses to do," said Kordiak.

"I have nothing but good things to say about Allison," he said. "I am confused as to why this board put her under this burden."

Lister spent 21 years in the Air Force, retiring as a senior master sergeant. She grew up in Anoka County. This was her dream job, she said. She succeeded Duane Krueger, who held the job for 28 years.

When Lister was hired, Dennis Berg, the board chairman at the time and a Vietnam veteran, gushed about her military experience, dedication to veterans and enthusiasm.

Lister and her staff saw a record 6,410 clients last year -- 543 more than the previous year. The increase was generated, in part, by the opening of a new veterans health clinic in Ramsey.

"This board has no idea what a coup it was to get Allison," said Marine veteran Dick Lang, who, like Berg, was on the board when she arrived and has since retired. County Administrator Jerry Soma described Lister's work as "excellent" but told her he "didn't know where the department was headed."

Novak's tenure with the county ends in September. The departments he has overseen -- including veterans services -- are being dealt to other supervisors.

"I wish she hadn't written the e-mail," Carol LeDoux said. "That said, she set the gold standard. Hers is the department others should strive to be."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419